Understanding your own identity and how people see you is an essential step for learning cultural competencies. Who are you? Have you ever sat down and thought about all the facets of your identity? It might seem a little strange, and I’m not talking about “finding yourself” or anything. But I’m serious, before you go abroad, you should think about how you fit into a global identity.
Start by answering these questions: Where am I from? What race am I? What ethnicity? What nationality? What socio-economic class am I? What gender? Sexual orientation? Religion? What is my native language? What does my family structure look like? After you answer these questions, think about what they mean, how they affect your interaction with others, especially others who come from a different culture.
About 80% of study abroad students are white. My friend was in class the other day and their teacher asked them to think about their identity. One of the students responded that she doesn’t think about being white. She grew up in an all white town, and said “I don’t see color.”
I’m sure many of you can relate to this student’s perspective on race. I grew up in an all white town too, going to college in Atlanta was the first time I really thought about race, and identified as being white. What many white people, like this student, didn’t understand is that to be able to say “I don’t see color” is a privilege only extended to white people. As my friend said “You have to deal with the labels other people give you even when you don’t identify that way.”
Below is a selected list of other privileges listed by Peggy McIntosh in her essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” To see her full list and essay click here.
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
After you’ve mapped your identity, come up with your own list of privileges. Maybe you want to think about what privileges you have because you are a guy, or because you speak English. I know I can think of privileges I have because I’m female, on a daily basis I am extended courtesies that are not offered to my male counterparts. What about the privilege you have for being American?
Mapping your identity and making a list like this can be a helpful reminder of how you fit in to the global identity and how you may be perceived and labeled when you travel abroad.